Monday, March 26, 2012

O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

A design article by Mike Mearls on save-or-die rules in D&D stirred up discussion around the blogs and forums a few weeks back.

Save-or-die is one of those subjects which brings out ardent partisans for and against its inclusion in roleplaying games. Some gamers like the frisson of imminent danger that save-or-die brings to actual play. Others object to save-or-die for a variety of reasons, from attachment to their characters to the continuity of the adventure to the chore of making new characters in complex games to being sidelined during the game to the idea that death should only occur when it's suitably dramatic or when the player decides it's okay.

Another of the objections I read pretty routinely is that it encourages disposable characters. Why become invested in a character, goes the argument, if she can die on an unlucky roll?

Why, indeed?

For me, the answer is uncertainty. Maybe my character is Rob Roy, or maybe he's Alasdair MacGregor - I don't know which he may turn out to be at the outset, but either one is fun to play and harbors the same potential for success, whether or not that potential is realized in the campaign.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading Amanda's post at Drama, Dice, and Damsons on the end of her run as Maria in Twelfth Night. Amanda has this to say about the close of a show.
I won't miss it, but I will enjoy the memory.

The business of not missing a part or a play is important. I spent far too many years being devastated by the ends of shows and finally schooled myself to let go. This, I may add, was a huge improvement on the month- long grieving period I used to find myself indulging in. Now I can put it down at once, smile or wince at the memories and move on.
Amanda's perspective on a role and a show closely mirrors my own with respect to roleplaying games. I played a fighting man in an OD&D one-shot last March, and I was bummed when he got punked by a giant spider on a failed save against poison about an hour into the game. I liked Sir Guilbert de Roncevalles, le Dragon d'Aragonne; sure, he was a preening, arrogant git, but at the same time he was noble and courageous, and ultimately a bit foolhardy. For his short time in the gaming 'verse, he was fun to play, and I was sorry to lose him.

None of that prevented me from immediately taking over his squire, Jacques, as my new first-level character and playing on from there.

Being disappointed is fine; letting disappointment become a show-stopper, on the other hand, well, that can be a real problem.

I play my characters to the hilt, with the full expectation that any one of them can rise to greatness. And sometimes they achieve that greatness, and sometimes they get shot by a sneaky fusilier with a pistol, and it's all good. I smile, or wince, and reach for a blank character sheet.


  1. I think I rather like and need the thought of my character being in real danger. That doesn't mean I want them to die, but if they do, it's usually in a way that fits them and it hopefully brings their story to a good end (good for the story at least. It also makes their achievements more valuable, what's the fun if there is no real danger.

    Playing a lot of Call of Cthulhu will teach you how to lose a character gracefully, if you do it right. It works best if you become attached to the character, not a game that can be played well with throwaway characters.

    1. My Flashing Blades character found himself one failed roll away from dying - twice - during a duel. I would've winced if he'd died, but I wouldn't change that possibility for anything.

  2. Thank you for the shout out.

    Has anyone else noticed that it's the unlikely pcs who survive? Back before I used point buy, my record for rolling stats was truly, truly awful and it was always the single digit wonders who made it furthest.

    My husband has wonderful stories about his first ever fighter, Claudius. Claudius had Str 15 and Dex 3, meaning that although he hit a lot, he often dropped his weapon or simply fell over. Months of play later, Claudius was still going strong, mainly because he spent so much time flat on the floor.

    1. You're very welcome.

      I think there may be a connection between low stats and cautious play - if you don't feel like your character can go toe-to-toe all the time, you may be more likely to find other solutions than going to guns.

  3. Ha, yeah. I had a Cthulhu character who started with 56 sanity points, so he had about 20 or so to lose until he became unplayable insane. That character hung around for the better part of two years, despite many attempts on his life and sanity by the GM and died a very awesome, heartbreaking death.

  4. I prefer playing on the edge myself as well- in fact, my current Pathfinder character I expect will pass in the current postponed battle.
    That being said, sometimes it is the system that encourages easy or hard kills. If it is a system that takes a long time to make a character it seems that resurrection and cautious play increases.

    1. That's one of the reasons I avoid games with complex chargen. If it takes more than about ten minutes to make a character, then it's probably not for me.

    2. I agree 100%. In fact, I think that quick character generation is practically required for a high (or even moderate) mortality rate (which is in turn required for random character creation to work -- I write more about this on my blog here).


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